Small steps are at least steps and that's what Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia, running back Michael Pittman and defensive end Greg Spires took in practice on Thursday. Garcia was listed as not participating in practice on the injury report, but head coach Jon Gruden did disclose that Garcia did make an appearance on the field.

"He is improving," Gruden said. "He didn't really take many reps today, but he does feel a lot better and we're excited about that."

Gruden remained tight-lipped about who the starter is going to be under center on Sunday vs. New Orleans. It was reported in the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday that quarterback Luke McCown took the majority of reps in practice, a sign that the Bucs are leaning to him instead of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Gruden, however, hasn't confirmed who the starter is going to be.

"We have a situation right now where we're looking at both of them. I thought both guys did a pretty good job," Gruden said. "We need the guys to pick it up and play great for us to win this game. But I was pleased for the most part, and now we've got to step up around them. Everybody has to elevate their game now."

Gradkowski and McCown have seen time on the field during the regular season as McCown filled in for Garcia in Week 1 vs. Seattle. McCown went 1-for-4 for nine yards during his time vs. the Seahawks. Gradkowski saw action in a loss vs. Indianapolis, a win vs. Atlanta and last week's victory vs. Washington. Gradkowski went 9-for-19 for 106 yards last week and is 13-for-24 for 130 yards with one interception this season.

Pittman, who has battled an ankle injury for most of the season, was limited in practice on Thursday. Pittman came back from torn ligaments in his ankle two weeks ago vs. Atlanta, but re-aggravated the injury and had to sit out last week's victory vs. Washington.

Pittman's injury, along with losing running back Cadillac Williams for the season with a knee injury, has allowed running back Earnest Graham an opportunity to shine. Graham has taken advantage of his opportunity gaining 631 yards (4.1 avg.) this season with six touchdowns. Pittman has 213 yards rushing (4.7 avg.) along with 13 receptions for 111 yards (8.5 avg.).

"Yeah, he did a little bit. I don't know that his status changes much," Gruden said. "But some of these guys have to eventually test it out, and we'll see how he feels tomorrow."

Spires has missed four weeks with a torn calf muscle, but has been able to participate in a limited capacity in practice the last two days. In his absence, rookie defensive end Gaines Adams and defensive end Greg White have stepped up into the spotlight on defense. White is leading the team with five and a half sacks and Adams has three and a half sacks and 32 tackles this season.

Spires recorded 36 tackles and one sack before his injury vs. Jacksonville.

"Yeah, he's been out here the last couple days. I don't know that he'll be available in the game Sunday, but I don't know that he's not," Gruden said. "Some of these guys, they take steps, and it's good to see them both out there. We certainly need them."

Bucs kick return specialist Mark Jones was seen around One Buc Place on Thursday and answered questions about the rehab that he has begun on his knee. Jones was lost for the season when he tore his patellar tendon, the same injury that knocked running back Cadillac Williams out for the year, in a 23-16 loss vs. Detroit.

Jones has surgery on his knee five weeks ago and has started working out to strengthen his leg and knee to get back on the field next season. He is doing light workouts on the stationary bike, with leg curls and leg raises trying to build up the strength in his quadriceps muscle. Jones is hoping to begin some light jogging next month and has been told by doctors that he will be ready for training camp in 2008.

Doctors also told Jones that as bad as his injury was, he had the best case scenario as the tendon tore completely off the bone, which is classified as a clean tear. He was informed that his knee would actually be stronger than it was before the injury and that he wouldn't fell any lingering pain in the knee.

"Especially with the kind of tear that it was the doctors are actually impressed with my progress right now," Jones said. "Nobody wants to be hurt, but I'm glad the injury happened the way it did."

Jones was having a productive season returning kick and punts before his knee injury, averaging 11.9 yards per punt return and 28.6 yards per kickoff return. Since his injury, the Bucs are averaging only 5.7 yards per punt return and 19.6 yards per kickoff return.

The Bucs have struggled to find a replacement for Jones in either returning kickoffs or punts. Tampa Bay has had to use a rotation of cornerback Phillip Buchanon and wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard for punt returns, depending on the game situation. Wide receivers Chad Lucas and Michael Spurlock have received the majority of opportunities to return kickoffs.

Jones has no worries about returning to the level of play that he was at before the injury and is trying to remain mentally strong while rehabbing.

"I don't worry about things like that. It just a mindset kind of thing where I'm going to put it in God's hands and He's going to heal me, get me through this and get me even stronger," Jones said. "That's my mindset right now and I'm not even worrying about next year taking a hit on it because when I come back I'm going to be ready and not worry about getting hit."

Charlie Daniels, a popular country singer for many years, made a visit to Thursday's practice as a guest of defensive tackle Chris Hovan, center Dan Buenning and defensive end Kevin Carter. Daniels is in Tampa to play shows at the Hard Rock Café on Friday and Saturday.

Gruden spent a couple of minutes with Daniels after practice and was presented with a football that was signed by the country singer. Daniels is known best for songs like "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", "The South's Gonna Do It" and "Uneasy Rider".

"It was great to see him. He's a legend, at least the way I look at things. He's a great guy, too, and it's great having him out here," Gruden said. "He's actually a friend of some of our players. I can't take credit for anything but I'm certainly happy to meet him. I'll tune in to ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia' while I'm doing my scripts for tomorrow. We've had a chance, obviously, to meet some neat people, but Charlie Daniels ranks close to the top, if not at the very top. He's a heck of a guy."

Bucs fullback B.J. Askew (ankle) did not participate in practice and Garcia was listed as not participating in practice even though Gruden mentioned that he took some reps. Carter (groin), Pittman (ankle), Spires (calf) and cornerback Brian Kelly (ankle) were all limited in practice. Linebacker Barrett Ruud (knee) participated fully in practice on Thursday.

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